Professor Pearson: Publishers Get into the Education Business

Publishing and education group Pearson, PLC announced in August that it has launched a higher education college in the U.K. As of September 2012, Pearson College offers business degrees to a small "pioneer" intake of 40 students, becoming the first FTSE 100 company directly delivering undergraduate degrees in the U.K. A larger intake of students will embark on their studies in September 2013.

The company says that it is seeking to recruit "the brightest and most entrepreneurial students and equip them with the knowledge and skills employers seek." The degree course has been developed with input from companies such as telecom giant BT, IT services company Atos S.A., and Cisco. It will be validated by the University of London's Royal Holloway College, but students will study at Pearson's offices in London or Manchester.

So what sort of experience can the pioneer cohort of students expect? Students will be assigned an in-house mentor and will be placed on internships within Pearson and with external partner companies. It appears that students won't experience a traditional campus lifestyle, but they will, according to the Pearson College website, be expected to participate fully in an "online campus." According to the website the online campus will provide "all the materials you need: books, journals, instructions for your seminar activities and workshops, online lectures ... online exercises and tests," plus links to an online library and learning support. There is no mention of a physical library.

For many, Financial Times, Penguin Books, and the educational publishers Longman and Heinemann provide the traditional and familiar publishing face of the Pearson group, which made £1.2 billion (about $1.9 billion) in pretax profit in 2011. But the company's footprint in education is massive and is not just about textbooks-or even ebooks. Commenting on the 2012 half-yearly results, which showed strong growth in both revenue and profits from the education sector, chief executive Marjorie Scardino said, "Our strategy is to combine educational content, assessment, technologies and related services to help educational institutions become more effective and their students more successful." Pearson owns the U.K. examination board Edexcel (one of only three boards that mark and administer exams in England), and its "MyLab" digital learning, homework, and assessment programs are, it reports, used by more than 460,000 students around the world-an increase of 17% from 2011.

Looked at from the standpoint of Pearson as a once-traditional media company, it's a classic example writ large of the model that, some argue, brings success to publishers in the 21st century: Embed content in workflow wherever possible to meet users' needs seamlessly, wherever and whenever they occur. Pearson does this with knobs on: It has a presence at a startling number of points in the education delivery process, whether it be textbooks, ebooks, elearning systems, testing, curriculum control, or school improvement.

Most publishers could only ever dream about such broad and deep sector coverage. Given the multiple touchpoints and Pearson's involvement in commissioning and participating in studies and recommendations, there has been criticism of the firm's influence on educational policy making in the U.K. The Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning, for example, is working with the U.K.'s RSA (Royal Society of Arts) to examine the impact of "academy" schools in the U.K.-a key plank in the coalition government's education plans. "Should Pearson, a giant multinational, be influencing our education policy?" asked The Guardian in July 2012.

Roxanne Stockwell, managing director of Pearson College, draws an explicit parallel between the company's roots as a publisher and its ambition for the new venture: "Given its academic publishing heritage and over 150 years of commercial experience, Pearson is uniquely placed to develop and deliver degrees that combine a solid academic foundation with meeting business and employer needs," she says. Whether or not the institution provides success for its students remains to be seen. And with only 40 students in its first year, Pearson College is, in many ways, a small-scale initiative. With tuition fees set at £6,500 (about $10,269) a year (coming in well under the U.K. government's mandated ceiling of £9,000 [about $14,399] a year) and no doubt significant startup costs, it's hardly, at this early stage, a major moneymaker. But the company has demonstrated that it is prepared to play a long game to establish a position. Toward the end of 2011, it announced that it was partnering with Google on the launch of OpenClass, a free learning management system. It will be fascinating to watch how this process unfolds.